Slavoj Zizek has been called “an academic rock star” and “the wild man of theory”; his writing mixes astonishing erudition and references to pop culture in order to dissect current intellectual pieties. In The Puppet and the Dwarf he offers a close reading of today’s religious constellation from the viewpoint of Lacanian psychoanalysis. He critically confronts both predominant versions of today’s spirituality–New Age gnosticism and deconstructionist-Levinasian Judaism–and then tries to redeem the “materialist” kernel of Christianity. His reading of Christianity is explicitly political, discerning in the Pauline community of believers the first version of a revolutionary collective. Since today even advocates of Enlightenment like Jurgen Habermas acknowledge that a religious vision is needed to ground our ethical and political stance in a “postsecular” age, this book–with a stance that is clearly materialist and at the same time indebted to the core of the Christian legacy–is certain to stir controversy.
It is hard to know what to make of the paragraph above. ( what on earth is deconstructionist-Levinasian Judaism?) I think that at least Zizek has some sense of the way historical materialism falls short of the task of a leftist take on ‘religion’. But I sense a kind of condescension here, as if the materialism of modern scientism were some kind of supertheory with theoretical rights over all. In reality, the postsecular age is nothing of the kind, and in the true secular age of modernity, a genuine dialectic of opposites can easily embrace the opposites of materialism, the brands of idealism, the transformation of religion in the Reformation, and the rapid influx of global religion in the wake of the modern transition, witness the multiple new age movements in the bazaar of modernist globalization, religion included, as the global commune moves from the Axial Age legacy to the foundations for a new era of religion, or else non-religion in some form.
The left needs to tear up its notes, because the historical materialist interpretations of xtianity and buddhism, to pick two from a long list, cannot do justice to the history. Xtianity is one of the trickiest religious histories and even getting the basics right, in the midst of its confusing myths, is very difficult, and probably impossible given standard materialist analyses. With all due respect the legacy of psychoanalysis applied to religion is uniquely dreadful and should be scrapped.
The study of the Axial Age shows how the complexity in the background defies both scientific and, ironically, religious analysis.
We have suggested here that the distinction of sacred and secular is misleading and in a great irony the leftist activism of the nineteenth century was a new formation moving toward a de facto religious/postcapitalist endstate (or new beginning). But it came out of the starting gate carrying a cement block, and the result has been left behind by the successors to the Reformation.
We can’t produce a materialist version of xtianity without the result being inferior to the predecessor, however vitiated by legend and mythology. History has to show some progression here, and the riddle of the sphinx rivals the riddle of xtianity.
I have tried to consider two broad strands of antique religion, the paths of being and the paths of will. Modern materialism doesn’t even rate either one, and is simply off the wall. The issue is not the vast detail of xtian spiritual psychology/theology, but its macrohistorical core, as seen in the study of the Axial period via WHEE.
We thus have a ways to go to produce a genuinely secular world view. All of the verbiage misusing the term ‘secular’ is beside the point. The ‘secular’ is all the elements that went into creating the modern transition, and that includes multiple opposites from science to religion. German classical philosophy provoked the way to a future secular/religious vision, but stopped short of the result. Can we resolve the place of consciousness in the generation of the categories of space and time? We have left Kant behind, because he has left us behind, and think we are moving into the future, when we are stuck already in the past of modernity with a brand of scientism.
In any case, Zizek aptly points to the place of the Pauline moment and the onset of a revolutionary challenge to the Roman Empire. But the materialist account of the onset of xtianity is likely to fail.
It is worth noting that ‘spiritual’ antiquity long ago embraced materialism in the forms of Samkhya and the irony of ironies here is that modern materialism is inferior to that of antiquity. The students of Samkhya are prepared to accept a materialist version of religion, but the impoverished versions of modern scientism don’t rate the election.
Who will redeem for us the materialist kernel of marxism? That outlandish brand of idealism in a marxist disguise.